Cover Resting, c. 1978-83, Chinese ink and colour on silk, 68 x 95 cm. Private Collection

Curated by art historian Tan Yong Jun, Tonalities: The Ink Works of Cheong Soo Pieng features over 100 ink works by the Nanyang artist, with many being exhibited for the first time

Drying Salted Fish is probably Cheong Soo Pieng’s best-known work. It “changes hands” daily for it is printed on the back of Singapore’s $50 note. (The 1978 work of Chinese ink and watercolour on cloth is in the collection of the National Gallery Singapore.) But it was the Singapore pioneer artist’s diverse artistic oeuvre that excited critics and collectors throughout his career and even till today. So it is no wonder that he was hailed as one of the most innovative Chinese artists of the 20th century.

Cheong’s entire body of ink work is explored in Artcommune Gallery’s milestone exhibition, Tonalities: The Ink Works of Cheong Soo Pieng, which opened last month at Artspace@Helutrans in Tanjong Pagar Distripark. Featuring over 100 ink works spanning the period of 1949 to 1983 (the year he passed away), the exhibition is said to be the first-ever retrospective survey of the styles and themes that the artist explored duing the different periods of his career.

Many of Cheong’s works have found their place in private art collections and some of their owners have generously loaned them for the exhibition, with many of the works being exhibited for the first time. Here’s what you need to know about the artist’s remarkable ink journey.

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He was part of the historic Bali trip

Between the 1950s and ’70s, Cheong went on several painting sojourns overseas, but it was the historic 1952 Bali trip with fellow artists Liu Kang, Chen Wen Hsi and Chen Chong Swee that led to the birth of the Nanyang art style. This was also the start of Cheong’s lifelong fascination with Balinese figures and oriental motifs. Other trips that were known to have influenced his art include his longhouse stay in Borneo in 1959 which inspired a lifelong interest in the indigenous Dayak people; his European trip from 1962 to 1963 that led him towards his exploration of lyrical abstraction; and his first return trip to China in 1979 which reflected a new modern discourse steeped in Chinese classicism.

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His earlier paintings offered introspective representations of the people and landscapes of Southeast Asia

Like many artists of his generation, Cheong was in the pursuit of modern aesthetics through forms and techniques derived from both Western and Chinese art traditions. To him, the ink medium came with the burden of a landscape tradition. His landscapes often reflected his relationship with the land, first reimagined through cubism, before rejecting the received techniques in his later years. He also depicted a wide range of Southeast Asian subjects, from Balinese and Bornean indigenes to residents of Singapore, and even his own family members, all seen through a polyphonic gaze.

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His encounters with post-war contemporary art in Europe led to new stylistic innovations

There was an increased focus on abstraction after Cheong’s return from Europe. He moved towards a more idiosyncratic style, a departure from the earlier cubist modes. The rethinking of the relationship between his art and ethnicity led to new stylistic innovations during this period, and his visual vocabulary included new media such as batik, collage and found materials.

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For the first time, his Nanyang scrolls have been identified as a series

Until recently, Cheong’s classicist ink works on paper, silk, cloth and canvas, created between 1978 and 1982, have been few and far between, but a number of them have surfaced allowing for a more comprehensive study of the works in the last few years of his life. For the first time, his Nanyang scrolls, noted as critically important to his oeuvre, are exhibited together as a series, looking at the artist’s exploration into material culture.

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Tonalities: The Ink Works of Cheong Soo Pieng runs until June 13 at Artspace@Helutrans.